There's a thrilling level of tension throughout this imaginative and adventurous production by Phyllida Lloyd at the Donmar. Watching the second preview on Friday night, I remained on the edge of my seat for more than two hours. Though the show runs without an interval, it crackles with excitement from beginning to end.
Like the Michael Sheen Hamlet at the Young Vic a year ago, it's set in an institution -- a women's prison. There's a welcome absence of site-specific malarkey and the audience, for once, is left allowed to sit down without being ordered around by fierce uniformed guards. But the prison atmosphere is palpable throughout, with roving spotlights picking out the actors from afar, and a cacophony of harsh noise that never lets up, from the opening moments when the actors bang their metal dinner trays.
The Donmar, not the most flexible of small theatres, has been transformed. The welders have been called in to turn it into a brutalist nightmare of a place, where every noise is metallic and every steel surface is jagged and hard. It's not so much the Roman Capitol as Holloway prison on a bad night. The story of Caesar's killing and its aftermath becomes a play within a play, performed by a motley cast who file in from their cells in grey and yellow prison tracksuits and hoodies. Lloyd creates a dog-eat-dog world where life is cheap and violence is always just below the surface. What emerges particularly clearly in this reading is the Shakespearean message that the conspirators' ultimate failure comes because Brutus isn't ruthless enough; a mistaken sense of fair play and a distaste for excessive violence prevents him from ordering the murder of Mark Antony, Caesar's underestimated sidekick. But prison is no place for ethical thinking; only the toughest survive.
The prison setting gives the violence an improvised feel; the weapons used to kill Caesar are the ones easily available behind bars, including a bottle of bleach and a kettle full of boiling water. In the battle scenes the guns are plastic toys and the knives are prison-issue plastic cutlery, but the killing is no less real. The soothsayer is a sinister child riding a tricycle, and the Ides of March prophecy comes from a woman's magazine horoscope. And in Bunny Christie's excellent design, when the conspirators dip their hands in Caesar's blood, the splash of colour comes from bright red rubber gloves. That's a small stroke of genius, one of many imaginative leaps in this production. At the second preview I saw on Friday, there were still a few rough edges, a sign not of uncertainty but of an excessively fertile collective imagination at work. By press night, I expect a few elements to be successfully pruned back.
There are two former Cleopatras in this play -- Harriet Walter and Frances Barber. Walter, androgynous with short cropped hair, turns Brutus into a character wracked by moral uncertainty, always a little apart from the other conspirators. It's a stunningly effective performance. I'm less impressed with Barber's swaggering Caesar, lording it over the other prisoners in black beret and black leather coat. Somehow this Caesar, stuffing a doughnut into the mouth of Cassius as an excercise in humiliation, manages to appear more grotesque than truly frightening, lacking the inner stillness of the true dictator. Barber comes across more like a tough criminal enforcer in a subordinate position than a true capo di tutti capi whose will is enforced at the merest frown or gesture. But the rest of the acting is superb; it's no surprise that Jenny Jules makes a brilliant Cassius, whose confrontation and reconciliation with Brutus before the battle of Philippi is one of the dramatic highlights. There is another standout performances by rising star Cush Jumbo as Mark Antony. She has the capacity to turn a speech as familiar as the funeral oration over Caesar's body into something new and electrifying. Clare Dunne doubles excellently as Portia and Octavius Caesar, slipping from a soft Dublin accent as Brutus's wife to a harsh and unforgiving Belfast twang.
The perennial problem with the play's structure is that after the funeral scene, everything is an anticlimax. Lloyd tries hard to overcome this with a variety of stage techniques in the second half, not all of which are equally effective. For me, there's a bit too much rock music on offer and occasionally the action drifts away from Shakespeare. But that's what previews are designed for; this is a living production in which performance, design and style seem to have grown organically, rather than being imposed by directorial dictatorship. Not everyone will buy into the giant imaginative leaps that Phyllida Lloyd demands of the audience; the same was true of Michael Sheen's Hamlet a year ago. But I found her approach exhilarating and refreshing, breathing energy and drama into a play that can sometimes fall into ho-hum predictability.
I now realise that I haven't written at all about the aspect of this production that has attracted most advance attention -- the fact that all the actors are female. I don't think it actually matters that much, though it's great to see someone of the calibre of Harriet Walter stamp their authority on what are usually male roles. Did I at any point miss the presence of male actors? Certainly not, and I have to say I never really thought about this aspect of the production until the performance was over.